Another word that is so common to us that we tend to stop questioning its meaning, is exchange. We use the principle of exchange daily, whenever we buy something: you give me an object, and I give you the agreed upon amount of money in return. In doing so, I’ve got the object I desire, and you’ve got yourself a financial compensation which should be, according to classical economic principles, equal to the value of the object that is now in my possession. ‘Nothing is more basic to the functioning of capitalist society than the elemental transaction in which we acquire a certain quantity of use value in return for a certain sum of money’. 1
This type of transaction facilitates economic interaction between two strangers. But it also means that you and me don’t have to engage in anything more than a very brief moment of exchange, after which we can become strangers again. We never knew each other, and we will never get to know each other either. Because once we complete our transaction, there is no reason to maintain any sort of relationship. ‘What marks commercial exchange is that it’s “impersonal”: who it is that is selling something to us, or buying something from us, should in principle be entirely irrelevant. We are simply comparing the value of two objects’. 2 The image below represents this commercial exchange.
In this diagram, time is plotted as a line, vertically, with you and me as the actors on either side. Transactions are plotted as lines running between us, accompanied by a node on the timeline. This node depicts who gives and who receives, and in which quantity. If we translate the story of me buying something from you into a diagram, we get the image above. There are two things that are striking in this image. First of all, it is completely symmetrical. We exchange two things of equal value, resulting in two equally sized half circles at the node on the timeline. The second thing about the diagram is that it is very empty. Once we’ve completed our transaction, nothing happens between us. We came, we saw, and we exchanged. And that’s that. A consequence of the lack of any relationship between both parties is that the sole focus of the transaction is the exchange of values. ‘[W]hen both parties to the transaction are only interested in the value of goods being transacted, they may well — as economists insist they should — try to seek the maximum material advantage.’ 3 Whether or not this is a good thing is up to the reader to decide, but I feel both recent and past events have shown we humans don’t get to show our best side when motivated by greed.
Now that we’ve taken a look at social relations in commercial exchange, let’s examine how we experience exchange with people that are dear to us. First of all, it is important to realise we rarely use money amongst friends and family. Even though we know that out there, in society, everything has a price-tag, we tend to skip an actual comparison in values. In the case that we are friends, our relationship is based on reciprocity, rather than on an exchange of equal values. This relationship is very flexible, and allows for the exchange of values over a long period of time. If I help you move to your new apartment, I don’t expect to get paid. Maybe you’ve prepared a meal for those who came to help, to say thank you. Or maybe I can call in your help when I’m writing a blog and I need a review. That’s what friends are for! But however we decide to further shape this reciprocal relationship, we never expect to equalise the value of our favours back and forth. Attempting to “settle the debt” would be like saying you would like to end our friendship. The image below illustrates a relationship based on reciprocity.
The basic elements in this diagram are the same as in the previous image, but the starting point is we both owe each other about the same amount. With time passing, we exchange things back and forth, shifting the debt we have towards one another all the time. In some relationships, for instance between a child and its parents, this shifting back and forth can take place in the span of a lifetime. Even in regular friendships the balance might shift towards either side of the scale a fairly large amount at some point in the relationship. But even though there is no attempt to, ultimately, settle the debt, deviating too much from a point of balance is not acceptable either. Whereas in commercial exchange it has become the norm to seek the maximum material advantage, this attitude is not appreciated amongst friends and families. One will be said to be taking advantage of his fellows.
So without drawing big conclusions, I want to leave you with a question. If we agree that in our dearest relationships we prefer not to use money and feel these relationships should be based on reciprocity, why do we use the model of commercial exchange to shape most of our society?
- 1) Harvey, David. The Limits of Capital. London: Verso, 2006, p. 9
- 2) Graeber, David. Debt: the first 5000 years. New York: Melville House Publishing, 2011, p. 103
- 3) Ibid